Elizabeth Warren wants to legalize marijuana nationwide. Here’s where she would start.

"Bringing cannabis into the legal regulatory system alone is not enough."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign rally Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a campaign rally Sunday in Denver. –David Zalubowski / AP

Over the past decade, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has evolved into a vocal supporter of legalizing marijuana. And in a new plan rolled out Sunday by her 2020 presidential campaign, the Massachusetts senator laid out how she would work to put an end to the current “broken system.”

“We’ll regulate the industry so it’s safe and legal,” she wrote on Medium. “And by reinvesting the tax revenue earned from marijuana sales, we’ll begin to rebuild communities devastated by the policies of the failed War on Drugs, and ensure that those communities are equally able to participate in the budding cannabis industry.”

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Warren’s plan acknowledged the potential political roadblocks to marijuana reform; the Republican-controlled Senate has repeatedly blocked recent proposals, even as cannabis is increasingly legalized at the state level.

While calling for “full legalization, as quickly as possible,” Warren said she would start by working to pass a bill introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, a former fellow Democratic primary candidate, that would effectively decriminalize marijuana at the federal level by removing the drug from the government’s list of banned substances.

Named the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement [MORE] Act, the bill leaves the decision to fully legalize the substance to the states. So far, 11 states (including Massachusetts) and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational use and possession of small amounts of marijuana, while another 15 states have decriminalized the drug, meaning that individuals can still be fined for possession but won’t be arrested or imprisoned for small amounts.

The MORE Act would also create a process for those with prior marijuana convictions to get their records expunged, as well as require courts to grant resentencing hearings for people still serving time. The legislation would prohibit the denial of federal benefits, such as housing, because of one’s past marijuana use or convictions.

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However, in the event that such legislation can’t get through Congress, Warren said she would take steps to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

“I’ll appoint agency heads, including at the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who support legalization,” she wrote. “In my first 100 days, I’ll direct those agencies to begin the process of delisting marijuana via the federal rule-making process.”

Warren also said she would reinstate a policy implemented by President Barack Obama — and rescinded by President Donald Trump’s administration — that essentially directed federal law enforcement officials to allow states to enforce their own marijuana policies.

Her support for the full legalization of recreational marijuana puts Warren in line with most of the remaining Democratic candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg are the only ones that stop at federal decriminalization and letting states decide whether to legalize marijuana; Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard all support pursuing legalization at the national level. Sanders has even gone as far as saying he would use an executive order to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office, though it’s unclear whether such an action would survive a legal challenge.

In her plan, Warren stressed that simply making future marijuana use legal is not enough, given the historic impact that prohibition has had on minority communities.

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“It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities,” she wrote. “It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. And it’s about ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities that the new cannabis market provides.”

As president, Warren said she would also direct agencies to develop grant programs and rules to “support a racial justice approach to marijuana legalization.” In addition, she pointed to the growing revenue states have collected from taxing and regulating marijuana as an opportunity (for example, Massachusetts has a 20 percent tax on marijuana sales, which is meant to fund a variety of programs, from schools to assistance to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs).

The MORE Act proposes an additional 5 percent federal marijuana sales tax to fund programs aimed at helping disproportionately affected communities gain a foothold in the cannabis industry. In her Medium post, Warren also voiced support for a separate bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer that would earmark a certain percentage of marijuana tax revenue to establish a fund specifically to support women and minority owned small cannabis businesses.

Some states, like Massachusetts, have struggled to ensure diversity in the fledgling industry, amid concerns that locally owned small businesses will be edged out by investor-backed (and predominantly white) national players. Warren even called out John Boehner, the former House speaker and one-time opponent of marijuana legalization, who now “profits handsomely as a lobbyist” for the industry.

“Bringing cannabis into the legal regulatory system alone is not enough,” she wrote. “We also have to act to ensure real equity in access to this emerging industry.”

Warren said she would try to “mitigate the high permitting and licensing fees that prevent many aspiring entrepreneurs of color from starting a cannabis business.” The Cambridge Democrat also called for ensuring that entrepreneurs in the industry have access to banking and for federal regulation that preserves “market access and competition.”

“We’ll make sure Big Tobacco can’t muscle in on the fledgling marijuana industry,” she wrote. “And we’ll use anti-trust laws and federal oversight to prevent consolidation in the cannabis industry that drives up prices, restricts new businesses from entering the markets, and lowers quality.”

Lastly, Warren voiced support for a bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, another former 2020 candidate, that would create a federal fund of at least $500 million to go toward job training, reentry services, and community centers in places most affected by the war on drugs. The legislation would also strip money from local law enforcement agencies found to be enforcing laws against marijuana with a racial bias.

Warren wasn’t always an outspoken supporter of cannabis legalization; in fact, she publicly opposed making recreational marijuana legal as a first-time Senate candidate in 2012. It wasn’t until 2015 that Warren said she was “open” to the idea and has since said she voted for the 2016 ballot measure legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts.

In 2018, she pushed legislation that would give states more freedom on marijuana policy and ensure banking access for legal businesses. The bipartisan bill did not however remove marijuana from the list of federally banned substances.

But as a presidential candidate, Warren has been unequivocal in her support for full legalization.

“Legalizing marijuana gives us an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by our current criminal justice system, to invest in the communities that have suffered the most harm, and to ensure that everyone can participate in the growing cannabis industry,” she wrote Sunday. “We have an opportunity now to get this right, and I’ll fight to make that happen.”

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